Photo taken by André Karwath

Photo taken by André Karwath

Scientists at Oxford University’s Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour “identified the switch in the brain that sends us off to sleep”  (see original article) by doing a study on fruit flies (Drosophilia).  This part of the brain had been discovered in 2011 (see this article about the discovery), but the new research identifies more specifically the molecules and sleep-causing cells involved. 

The switch (which is made of several molecules) in the fly brain is likely similar to the switch in the human brain because both species have a similar group of sleep neurons.  This switch regulates the neurons that cause organisms to sleep (the neurons that are targets of anesthetics).   The sleep neurons are active when the organism is tired and needs sleep (it is the result of these neurons being activated that causes sleep), and less active when it is well rested.  The switch or “homeostat” is one of two devices that regulate sleep (the other is the body clock that distinguishes night from day in humans). It records the hours a person is awake and then signals the neurons that cause sleep when the person needs to rest.    

In the study, flies were kept awake all night.  Regular flies slept more the next day, while the mutants could not do this.  The mutants were found to “nod off” (determined by the fact that flies stop moving when they sleep) and were found to have learning and memory issues.  In these mutants, researchers found a key molecular piece of the “sleep switch” and determined that it was broken.  This resulted in the neurons that cause sleep not being activated; this led to insomnia.

Now that the sleep switch has been “pinpointed”, what new drugs will be created to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders?  People are also wondering if this more specific discovery will help answer the larger question of why animals need sleep at all.  As someone who does not get much sleep, I find this new identification very interesting and relevant in the busy lives of people today.

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